On the first day of spring training, Albert Pujols stood before microphones in Arizona to formally introduce a new era for the Los Angeles Angels.
“Here I am,” he said.
Nearly a month into the regular season, Angels fans can be excused for wondering if the announcement wasn’t a bit premature. So far, the slugger team owner Arte Moreno shelled out $240 million for has yet to even show up.
It is early, and there’s still a lot of baseball to be played. No reason to panic about his hitting or sudden lack of power, even as the Angels are starting to panic about a start that has them floundering in last place in the American League West, nine games behind the Texas Rangers.
In the past few days alone, they cut a player making $9 million a year, and demoted their closer. Players held their own team meeting behind closed doors to try and figure out what has gone wrong.
But there’s not much they can do about Pujols other than wait and hope.
Wait for him to start hitting like the stud he always was in St. Louis. Hope that his power outage is just an aberration, not a painful glimpse of what the next 10 years might be like.
“It’s a short sample to look at anything that’s going on to give any trends right now,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “There’s some things he will do as he gets comfortable in the batters’ box that we’ll start to see.”
Indeed, there are reasons to believe Pujols will become the player everyone expects him to be in Anaheim. He’s getting used to a new team, a new league, a home stadium not built for the long ball, and a bunch of new pitchers he’s never faced before. And he did have a similar power drought early last season, before finishing with 37 home runs.
But Pujols has been struggling just to get hits, much less home runs. He did manage to snap a career-worst hitless streak of 21 at-bats with a ground single against Tampa Bay earlier in the week, but is hitting just .226, well below his career average of .328 with the Cardinals.
Other teams are taking notice, and taking advantage. With the game on the line with two outs in the eighth inning Friday night and a runner on second base, the Indians pitched to Pujols instead of giving him the open base. Pujols responded by popping up to first base, and the Angels ended up losing their fifth in a row.
No reason not to pitch to him. In 21 games this year, Pujols has only four RBI and has yet to hit a home run. His regular-season homerless drought is now at a career-worst 113 at-bats, dating back to Sept. 22.
Hardly what Moreno expected when he paid more to get Pujols in an Angels uniform than he did to buy the team nine years ago. Hardly what Pujols expected, either, when he signed the deal that will pay him nearly a quarter billion dollars.
“I know I have power. I know I can hit the ball from corner to corner,” Pujols said last week in Anaheim. “I know all that, but I’m not going to think about getting caught up and saying, ‘Man, I haven’t hit a home run.’ … I have, what, 445 (career home runs) for a reason.”
Pujols was the centerpiece of an off-season buying spree by the Angels, who also paid $77.5 million for five years for starting pitcher C.J. Wilson. The two were expected to not only help the Angels contend against the Rangers, but to contend for the hearts of Southern California baseball fans against the Dodgers.
The thinking around baseball was that Moreno paid huge money over 10 years for Pujols not because he thought the slugger would be hitting a lot of home runs at the end of his contract, but because he would deliver early. Indeed, the money would be considered well-spent should Pujols revert to form and maybe even lead the Angels to the World Series in the first few years of his deal.
So far, though, there’s no sign of that happening. And the more Pujols struggles, the more ridiculous his
10-year deal seems.
Right now, he’s nothing more than a $240 million mistake.